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Longtime volunteer who knew Watertown’s history dies

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For more than 15 years, J. Clancy Hopkins Jr. was the person you went to if you wanted to know about Watertown’s long history.

He often sat alone in a basement room of City Hall, filing information about the city’s history. He really enjoyed those occasions when someone called him or stopped by to ask about family genealogy or wanted a specific question answered about the city’s past.

Mr. Hopkins died Thursday after suffering from a long illness. He was 89.

“It’s a huge loss for the city and the city’s historian room,” said City Clerk Ann M. Saunders, whose office is responsible for the history office. “He was a wealth of knowledge. He will be missed by his family here in City Hall.”

Most people referred to him as the city historian. Mrs. Saunders actually holds that title, but it was Mr. Hopkins to whom people turned for answers about Watertown, she acknowledged.

Last March, Mr. Hopkins was among about 40 volunteers who were honored by the city for their work over the years.

He also had served on the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library board of directors and at the front desk at Samaritan Medical Center.

“It keeps me young,” he said in October. “And keeps you moving. You can’t just sit on the sofa at home and watch TV.”

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham recalled appointing Mr. Hopkins to the library board in the 1990s, when he served as the only member with a blue-collar background.

“I don’t think he had an elitist bone in his body. He was definitely civic-minded,” the mayor said. “He led a full life and he’ll be missed.”

Mr. Hopkins helped file thousands of old birth, marriage and death records and newspaper clippings stored on computer.

Usually, the retired manufacturing representative brought his 13-year-old poodle, Tiger, to keep him company while he worked.

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Mr. Hopkins dressed up as a leprechaun and gave out green corsages to the library staff, library Director Barbara J. Wheeler recalled.

“A little bit of smiles and laughter left the world today,” she said.

With a keen interest in genealogy, Mr. Hopkins worked for more than two years to get the library access to the state Index for Vital Records, which has helped more than 1,000 people learn about their family history, Mrs. Wheeler said.

Last October, Mr. Hopkins became an advocate for helping people suffering from mental illness after a tenant caused $35,000 in damage to a Washington Street apartment he owned. The tenant wrote religious rantings all over the walls, but Mr. Hopkins held no malice against the man. Instead, he got involved in a movement to keep open the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg.

The father of five children — an attorney, a plastic surgeon and three business owners who live all over the country — grew up in Syracuse and moved to Watertown during the 1960s. His wife, Patti L., works as an administrative assistant in the city’s engineering office.

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